By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer
A law funding efforts to end violence against women may find new life in Congress this year.
Senate Bill S. 47 reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act, which was allowed to expire last year.
If it fails, organizations and programs that fight domestic violence — including law enforcement, courts, shelters and counseling — will not receive federal funding the act provided. Grants from the act helped fund local programs, including Women In Safe Home shelter in Muskogee, and Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation domestic violence programs.
If passed, it also will expand the rights of Native American tribes by allowing them to prosecute non-Indians in tribal courts.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger said passing the bill is crucial to all victims of domestic violence.
“We feel strongly that this bill is needed in Indian Country,” Tiger said. “But domestic violence, violence against women doesn’t see color lines. And we (federal, state and tribal governments) should work together and recognize one another’s respective judicial systems.”
VAWA was first enacted in 1994, and has been reauthorized every five years. It expired in late 2011.
Several key provisions in the 2012 bill were considered controversial by lawmakers when they failed to reauthorize the act in 2012.
Among those provisions:
• A provision that would illegally create funding; and
• Provisions to extend protections to illegal immigrants, lesbians, gays, transgendered people, and Native Americans.
The 2013 version, introduced Jan. 22, does not include the provisions that illegally created funds and provided protection for illegal immigrants.
The expansion of tribal courts’ jurisdiction remain in the bill.
And the debate over whether to allow Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans could stall the bill again, lawmakers say.
Senators Tom Coburn and James Inhofe voted against the reauthorization act in 2012.
Inhofe could not be reached for comment.
Coburn’s office said in a statement he voted no for numerous reasons, though the expanded jurisdiction for tribal courts was one.
Coburn didn’t agree with the tribal courts jurisdiction provision because he had concerns about tribes’ ability to protect non-Native Americans’ constitutional rights under federal law, he said in the statement.
“Tribes have traditionally been regarded as unconstrained by certain constitutional provisions,” he said. “Thus, a non-Indian’s rights in a tribal court may be different from his or her rights in a federal or state court.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said the tribe is eager to have the act reauthorized with the provisions that allow tribal governments to “better protect and serve our citizens.”
“For too long Native women have suffered unequaled rates of sexual and domestic violence,” Baker said. “We need the capacity and tools to prosecute these violent offenders when they assault Native women in Cherokee Nation’s jurisdictional boundaries.”
Joni Greenhaw is program coordinator for the Cherokee Nation Office of the Attorney General, Domestic Violence Services.
Greenhaw said the provision is “very important” and needs to be approved.
“Very few of these cases get picked up by the feds,” Greenhaw said. “So if it’s just a misdemeanor domestic assault and a non-Indian perpetrator, that crime will go unprosecuted. It’s important to give tribes the authority to prosecute when you have a non-Indian commit a crime on tribal land.”
Statistics on the number or frequency of domestic violence crimes committed by non-Native American perpetrators on tribal land that are forwarded to the federal court system and/or conviction rates were unavailable.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma regularly communicates with each of the tribes in the district on the prosecution of domestic violence cases and all tribal cases that fall within federal jurisdiction, said U.S. Attorney Mark Green.
“The Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma considers prosecution of domestic violence in Indian country a top priority,” Green said.
Cherrah Giles, Muscogee Creek Nation secretary of the Department of Community and Human Services, said the Creek Nation has been actively lobbying to get the VAWA reauthorization passed.
Concerns that non-Native Americans may not be afforded the same rights they can expect as U.S. citizens are not valid, Giles said.
“We are just as sophisticated as the U.S. government,” she said. “We believe in our government’s ability to handle those cases.”
S. 47 specifically calls for tribal courts to provide non-Native American defendants of domestic violence crimes a trial by an impartial jury that cannot exclude non-Native Americans.
Additionally, the bill as introduced last week, states tribes shall provide “all other rights whose protection is necessary under the Constitution of the United States.”
Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or email@example.com.